They say they will not vote. But who are this mixed bunch?

MaltaToday’s October survey shows that at least a third of the electorate is intent on not voting. But who are these non-voters and what is the likelihood of them returning to the fold when a real election is on the horizon? JAMES DEBONO looks at their profile

MaltaToday’s latest survey suggests that non-voters are now more likely to have voted for the Labour Party in 2022 and peak in PL-leaning regions.

Their numbers have also increased among people in the middle of their working life (aged between 35 and 50), and those with a secondary level of education.

These figures tell us who non-voters are but does the survey give an indication on their future political choices?

1. Higher abstention rate is an established trend and not a statistical blip

The MaltaToday survey published on Sunday shows that 31% of voters will not be voting if a general election is held now. A Times of Malta survey using a similar methodology in June had registered an abstention rate of 28%. This suggests that the high rate of non-voters is no statistical blip but a constant feature in most published surveys.

Since there is no general election looming on the horizon, this abnormally high abstention rate also reflects electoral fatigue a year and a half after general elections in 2022. One would expect that when an election is really on the horizon, the figures will go down simply because the electoral machines of both parties will be set in motion.

Abstention could also be a sign of waning political loyalties as the country slowly moves in the direction of other western democracies whose turnout is rarely above the 80% mark.

But if this is the case one would expect the abstention rate to penalise both the Labour and the Nationalist parties equally. Contrary to what was the case before the 2022 election when abstention was higher among former PN voters, non-voters now prevail among Labour voters.

2. Labour substantially losing more votes to abstention than the PN

The survey shows that abstention is stronger among those who voted PL in the 2022 general election. While 29% of 2022 Labour voters are now intent on not voting, the figure falls to 14% among PN voters. This suggests dissatisfaction with the government among PL voters, who, however, are unwilling to cross the Rubicon by voting for the opposition party.

This represents a turnaround from October 2022 when in a MaltaToday survey using a different methodology only 8% of PL voters declared their intent to abstain in contrast to 21% of PN voters.

This is confirmed by a higher abstention rate in Labour leaning areas like the South-eastern region where abstention reaches the 36% mark and the Southern Harbour region where it reaches 31.6%.

In both districts the PN also registers dismal support that is below the 25% mark. This is an indication that dissatisfied Labour voters are simply parking themselves on neutral ground.

The risk for any PN strategy relying on a high abstention rate among Labour voters is that fear of a PN victory may well push some of these voters back to Labour’s fold. Therefore, even if the PN fails to win these voters over it must ensure they do not feel threatened by a change in government.

The survey offers no indication on whether 2022 Labour voters intent on not voting are traditional hard core PL supporters – and very unlikely to even consider voting PN - or floaters, who may have given their vote to the PN in the past.

To win an election the PN needs a strategy to lure back the latter while reducing the ‘fear factor’ that could drive the former back to Labour.

3. Trust barometer shows non-voters unimpressed by Bernard Grech

The Trust Barometer shows that only 2% of current non-voters trust Bernard Grech. A more significant 24% trust Robert Abela.

The likelihood of future PN inroads among non-voters is dampened by Grech’s low trust rating. Grech’s unpopularity among non-voters may prove to be a stumbling block for the PN as it tries to forge a path to victory.

Moreover, although 74% of non-voters trust neither leader a significant 24% trust Abela. This suggests that Labour has some space to grow among those intent on not voting. In fact, while 29% of PL voters are presently intent on not voting, the percentage of PL voters who trust neither leader falls to 24%. Yet, it will be harder for Labour to recover the sizeable category of ex Labour voters who are not only intent on not voting but who also have no trust in either of the two leaders.

4. Majority of non-voters in 2022 election who were more PN leaning are not coming back to either party

One reason why abstention is now lower among PN voters and higher among PL voters, is that the opposition party has already lost heavily to abstention in the past election. This means the PN simply has less votes to shed. In this sense an obese Labour has far more excess fat to lose than an underweight PN.

In the 2022 election the PN had already shed 12,463 votes from its 2017 vote count, while Labour had ‘only’ lost 8,269 votes from the previous election.

The survey also suggests that 72% of those who did not vote in 2022 are persevering in their choice and those coming back are equally split between PN, PL and third-party voters.

Moreover 80% of these non-voters in 2022 trust neither Grech nor Abela, which makes them a harder nut to crack.

5. Abstention peaks among 36- to 50-year-olds, an indication this is not simply a lack of interest in politics normally associated with the youngest age group

Unlike previous surveys showing a higher abstention rate among 16- to 35-year-olds, in this survey non-voters peak among 36- to 50-year-olds. This is a category which includes people at the peak of their working lives and who are probably also raising children.

Among this category, abstention reaches a staggering 45%, higher than the 39% registered among those under 35 years.

Also significant is the fact that abstention remains at a relatively high 30% even among 51- to 65-year-olds. This shows that although not voting prevails among under 50-year-olds, it is no longer a phenomenon limited to younger disillusioned voters.

Abstention only falls significantly among over 65-year-olds, where it dips to 13%.

6. Not voting is not exclusively a middle-class caprice

In an indication that non-voters are no longer restricted to a particular social class, the survey shows that abstention surpasses the 30% mark in all three main educational categories, namely the secondary educated (30%), the post-secondary educated (37%) and the tertiary educated (36%). It is only among those with a primary level of education who are mostly over 65 years of age that abstention falls to 11%. This suggests that abstention is not a preserve of more affluent middle-class voters who are more likely to have a university degree and historically lean towards the PN. In fact, the highest rate is registered among those who lack a degree but have attended a post-secondary course of education.

Moreover, the high abstention rate among the latter category has pushed Labour down to 28% just one percentage point above the PN. But the high level of abstention in this category is very worrying for Labour that has been registering since 2008 major inroads among post-secondary educated voters.

Labour may recover some support in this category since Abela’s trust rating (34%) is higher than the level of support for his party (28%).

But the PL also has additional worries caused by the high abstention rate among the secondary educated. In this cohort of voters, Labour now leads by a sheer three percentage points. But Labour may yet improve its score by recovering those abstainers who trust Abela more than Grech. Additionally, Abela remains 11 points more popular than his party among secondary educated voters.

7. Third parties enjoy more support in demographics with a higher percentage of non-voters

The survey also suggests that categories with a higher percentage of non-voters also tend to have a slightly higher percentage of non-party voters.  For example, among 16- to 35-year-olds, despite having an abstention rate of 39%, a tenth will still vote for a third party. And among the tertiary educated while 36% will not be voting, 9% opt for a third party. This is further evidence of waning political loyalties that is more pronounced among under 50-year-olds and those with a post-secondary or tertiary level of education.

But this does not give any indication on whether non-voters would be tempted to vote for a third party if there is one which appeals to their aspirations. The question remains; is not voting now considered a more effective political statement than voting for a third party or are current third parties unable to reflect the aspirations of these voters?